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Olympic Tensions Offer a Window Into Lebanese History

The Lebanese athletes’ refusal to share a bus with Israelis in Rio should be judged in its historical context.

The beginning of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was marked by a now widely publicized situation in which Lebanese athletes refused to share the same bus with their Israeli counterparts before the opening ceremony. While there are different accounts of how the incident developed, it appears that the Lebanese delegation prevented the Israeli athletes from entering the bus. Competing explanations suggest that the reason for this was that the bus was specifically designated for the Lebanese team, or that there were many other buses, or that the Israeli team was trying to cause trouble, or that the nine Lebanese athletes did not want to share a bus with the 47 Israelis.

Israeli media immediately decried the incident as mean, outrageous and racist. Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev was quick to accuse the Lebanese of anti-Semitism. An Israeli coach expressed: “Does this not directly oppose what the Olympics represent and stand for… I cannot begin to express my feelings, I’m in shock from the incident.” Readers of the articles published by Haaretz, Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel filled the comment sections with racist and threatening anti-Arab and anti-Lebanese insults and slurs.

The same Israeli administration that labels such an incident as shameful and un-Olympic has repeatedly blocked Palestinians from participating in the Olympics after having imposed restrictions on their preparations, in addition to the usual limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement. This year, Israel also confiscated the equipment of the Palestinian team.

While many have expressed shock at this incident, very few are discussing why the Lebanese athletes may have reacted in this way. One social media comment directed at the Lebanese delegation expressed that “they are involving politics where they don’t belong” — a sentiment repeated often by commenters, along with frequent statements demanding peace and wondering why “they” (people from Lebanon) cannot for once be peaceful, instead of living in perpetual war. These utterances, however, ignore the power relations in the Levant.

Maybe the athletes are involving politics. But who defines where politics belong and where they do not? If Israelis are able to fluidly move from political to non-political spheres, then this reflects their standard of liberty and security. Much of Israel’s liberty and security, however, has been based on the subjugation of Lebanon and its inhabitants. The assumption that Lebanese individuals could decide about war or peace in the region contradicts the geopolitical reality of an Israel that not only is hegemonic in the Middle East, but has exhausted extensive military, political and diplomatic means to occupy Lebanon, and to bomb and kill Lebanese people — without ever being held responsible. The Israeli state apparatus enjoys impunity.

Since its founding, Israel has constantly contested Lebanon’s right to exist. The disastrous Israeli presence in Lebanon over the last decades has been notably evident in: the Nakba and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis; Israel’s destructive involvement in Lebanon’s civil war; its occupation of southern Lebanon in 1978 and between 1982 and 2000; the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre (i.e. Ariel Sharon’s “orgy of rape and slaughter that left hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent civilians dead“); the 1993 “Operation Accountability;” the 1996 “Operation Grapes of Wrath;” the 1996 Qana Massacre; the 2006 war against Lebanon, in which Israel committed war crimes; or the internationally widely criticized 2006 Second Qana Massacre. Israel has regularly targeted civilians, including children. Besides the wars, Israel continues to violate several UN resolutions with the nearly daily crossings of Lebanese land, sea and air territory by Israeli war planes and drones, and through its constant mock air bombings to frighten Lebanese civilians.

The violent Israeli presence has left many people in Lebanon traumatized and threatened. Many have lost relatives and friends. Many have lost their houses and their existence. Many have been displaced. And many have been raped, tortured and humiliated. In fact, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Qana Massacre and this week marks 10 years since the second Qana massacre, both of which have left many still suffering from the traumatizing impacts.

The online commenters who are accusing the Lebanese athletes of “involving politics where they don’t belong” should at least be aware of the history and the present reality of the people they are talking about. Those who are claiming that Lebanese people “do not want peace” should be aware that this discussion is taking place in a context of occupation, colonization and military aggression under which Lebanon’s civil society has suffered heavily in the last seven decades.

Furthermore, those who are talking about how “these people do not want peace,” should take a closer look at what “peace” actually means. In the Israeli government’s terms, the “peace” paradigm serves to significantly conceal Israel’s human rights violations, because in the dominant Israeli narrative, peace equals keeping the status quo, which means a continuing colonization and an ethnic cleansing of Palestine without interference from Arabs or the world. So, maybe the Lebanese athletes did not want to accept this narrative of peace. Maybe blocking the bus door meant preventing Israelis from making decisions on their behalf. Maybe this was resistance.

The Lebanese athletes’ gesture must be understood at least in part as a reaction to the oppression to which they have been subjected. Israel has repeatedly violated Lebanese sovereignty, ignored UN resolutions and denounced any condemnation it might receive. Those who are branding the athletes’ behavior as racist must remember that Israel routinely violates Lebanese human rights.

Even if blocking the bus entrance to the Israeli athletes might not have been primarily done in order to gain media attention, it did serve to convey an act of protest within a Western media landscape that favors Israel and denies the Lebanese people, Palestinians, and others equal access to Western eyes, ears and emotions.

The media attention given to the incident now directly provides possibilities for open discussion on the relation between Lebanon and Israel, if we can move beyond knee-jerk reactions to asking why these athletes chose to block the bus.

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